Yesterday WeChat moments was overtaken with people posting colorful paintings to help raise money and awareness for those with mental disabilities. The campaign from Tencent Charity was an amazing success raising millions in hours and yet another clear demonstration of how mobile technology is changing the charity industry in China in ways that we don’t yet see in the rest of the world.
Above: A minimum donation of 1RMB (0.15USD) was required for users to buy a virtual artwork of their choice and add their name. The campaign easily reached their target of 15 million RMB (2.2 million USD) within hours.
Below: Chinese street beggars have also embraced WeChat mobile payments for eliciting donations
Why is WeChat pushing charity donations so much recently?
Besides this recent campaign, if you’ve been paying attention to your WeChat pay messages in China recently you will see that often when making in-store payments you will also receive virtual coins which you can use to donate to a selection of charity causes (see below).
For a long time WeChat has been subsidizing use of WeChat pay with random small micro cashbacks. This new system launched a few weeks back is WeChat’s first foray into the practice of further incentivizingmobile payment habits through charitable donations. It has strong echoes of the massively successful Alipay feature Ant Forest launched last year. As of April 2017, Ant Forest had over 220 million users.
Above: my rather pathetic Ant Forest tree at just 209 grams
Ant Forest encourages users to nurture a virtual sapling into a tree via making mobile payments with Alipay. Make a payment or pay a utility bill on Alipay and you are rewarded with nutrients to feed your plant. Reach a certain level and a real tree is planted for you in Inner Mongolia (an autonomous region of China). Alipay has made a lot of noise about the feature claiming to have planted a total of 8.45 million trees, reducing daily carbon emissions by 2,500 tons.
Below: 2 minute promotional video for Ant Forest
The gamification + charity combination has worked so well for Alipay that they have even launched a newFarmville inspired “Ant Manor” feature.
Above: Alipay’s new gamified charity feature
An issue of trust
Chinese netizens trust in charity has been shaken to some degree by famous charity scams in the past. Overall one of the key benefits an internet giant like Tencent has in providing a centralized platform for online charity is helping to resolve the issue of trust. Yet despite the fact the URL used (ssl.gongyi.qq.com) for yesterday’s picture campaign was clearly an official Tencent domain address, rumors and warnings continued to circulate online that the web page was a scam set up to cheat people.
Charity is really great for public relations, Alipay have really been milking their success for all it’s worth:
“(Ant Forest is) the first “bottom-up” approach in the world that encourages hundreds of millions of people to lead a low-carbon life. In January 2017, Ant Financial and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) launched the world’s first “Green Digital Finance Alliance” at the World Economic Forum in Davos to promote the extension of green finance throughout the entire global financial system. The Alliance will seek to extend Ant Forest’s carbon account to the global level.”
– Ant Financial 2016 Sustainability Report
Above: a page from Ant financial’s propaganda report
Yet the true reality is that these charity programs are simply being used as a form of moral incentive. It’s hard to understate how important payments are to the future of both Tencent and Alibaba. Donations add yet another string to the bow of successful use cases for mobile payments. And it seems both Alipay and WeChat have worked out that charity donations are a cheap and effective way to incentivize and build stronger use habits for their respective payment systems.
Coming up on September 9th will be the 3rd annual Tencent 99 Charity Day. Last year 6.8 million people donated 300 million yuan. This year I think we can expect that to jump considerably.